On January 19, 2019, an unmanned surface vehicle going by the name SD 1020 left Bluff, New Zealand, heavily tasked. SD 1020 had to cover 22,000 kilometers (11,879 nautical miles) around the Antarctic (Southern) Ocean, where colossal waves occasionally soar to nearly 24 meters, gusting winds exceed 65 knots, and titanium icebergs emerge out of nowhere, as the neophyte ocean envelops Antarctica like the iciest blanket ever—the Earth’s coldest, most remote, and most hostile water mass. The SD 1020 showed great resolve. On August 3, 2019, it returned to Bluff safe and became the first vessel ever to have completed an autonomous circumnavigation of the Antarctic.
SD 1020 is a member of the wider family of saildrones, wind- and solar-powered ocean drones that are able to sail 100 kilometers per day on average, and which consist of a narrow seven-meter-long hull, a five-meter-tall wing, and a keel with a 2.5-meter draft. These saildrones can be deployed and recovered from any seaside dock and can fit into a shipping container allowing transit to any launch site. When they’re deployed from a dock, they can sail to the area of study, and come back once the mission is complete.
“Saildrones are autonomous,” says Richard Jenkins, engineer, founder, and CEO of Saildrone, the company that designs, produces, and manages these USVs. A human gives them a route to sail and waypoints, and the vehicles get from one waypoint to the next autonomously by themselves. And they do so without putting to risk the sea or any marine life that crosses their path.
The technology enabling this autonomy is wholesome: Each USV carries an automatic identification system, navigation lights, a radar reflector, high visibility wing colors, four onboard cameras, acoustic Doppler current profilers (sonar systems to measure water current velocities), passive acoustic recorders for marine mammal studies, and an array of 20 sensors, different for each saildrone (sensors are recruited in alignment with the tasks the human operator wants to complete).
Linked to onboard computers and transmitting their data through satellite communications to the Saildrone mission control center in Alameda, California, these sensors can measure anything, whether it be air, sea, and bulk water temperature, irradiance, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, wave height and period, salinity and acidity levels, biomass and the list goes on.
When SD 1020 was launched from Bluff, it was “ordered” to accomplish a suite of science objectives. Most of them were about investigating the abundance of krill, the direct and indirect relationships between marine predators and prey, and the oceanic carbon dioxide uptake and general acidification—targets developed in collaboration with prominent research agencies of the U.S., Europe, and Australia. But SD 1020 didn’t leave the shores of New Zealand alone.
On that same January day, SD 1022 and SD 1023, two more saildrones, were launched alongside SD 1020, but were damaged en route and had to return to Bluff soon after. (The two drones were relaunched last May and are currently in the Southern Atlantic Ocean, collecting data on krill.) What made SD 1020 successful was its wing. SD 1022 and SD 1023 had a tall and slender wing, unable to withstand winds over 60 knots and the subsequent massive waves; au contraire, the triumphant USV had a robust, newly designed “square rig” able to withstand the huge forces of being rolled and submerged by 15-meter waves. It was a result of 10 years of research that interestingly span from Jenkins’s previous successful attempt to break the land speed record for a wind-powered vehicle.We can’t make any sweeping claims before scientists digest the data, but it’s safe to say that we already have important new data, particularly with reference to the rates of carbon uptake in the Southern Ocean,” Jenkins says. Previous scientific knowledge on the Southern Ocean based primarily on observations made from ships that avoided extreme winter weather conditions in the region assumed that the Antarctic was a huge carbon sink. But in the face of recent findings, scientists might want to reconsider.
“The Southern Ocean is one of the most unexamined areas of our planet,” Jenkins says. “The survival of the saildrone at sea for [so] long is an evolution of very solid engineering,” Jenkins says.
Though scientists have yet to wrap up their surveys, Jenkins is confident that the data saildrone SD 1020 brought to shore after circumnavigating the world’s youngest ocean for 196 days will have a tremendous impact on our understanding of the environment, weather, and climate, and will aid the sectors of shipping, fishing and oil and gas exploration.